I recently resurrected a post on Lewes bonfire night photography. One of my photo friends pointed out that the Lightroom info was out of date. When I reread the post I realised that my hit rate for nights such as these has improved since then! So I’m updating this post to include extra bits and pieces that you may find useful on the night. Of course using a tripod is the usual advice for night time low light conditions, but sometimes this just isn’t possible. On top of that your subjects are usually moving which makes it even harder to get a reasonable sharp shot. I think you need to accept a little softness and focus on capturing the light and drama of the night.
It is one of the most challenging of lighting conditions. There is very little light, except in small areas of the torches where it is burning bright, your camera simply cannot record detail in all of the areas of the image, it will burn out the fire and/or block in areas of dark. So what can you do?
First up the ISO
When you up the ISO (choose the biggest ISO numbers on your camera) there is a loss of quality, your image will become noisy. The extent of the noise at a high ISO will depend on your camera. The latest high end SLRs do a great job of minimising noise, cheaper cameras will struggle. Either end of the scale you need to edit the noise out later using Photoshop or Lightroom.
The sliders in Lightroom are really easy to use (find them in the ‘Detail’ drop-down of the development menu) and you can experiment with colour and luminance sliders and the detail and contrast sliders until you think you have an acceptable amount of noise and an acceptable amount of detail. The clarity slider can help too, found in the ‘Basic’ drop-down to balance the softening effect that reducing noise can have.
When I am converting to Black and White, sometimes I reduce noise only a fraction and add grain. It can give the effect of a film grained silver print and the little grain disguises the noise.
What Aperture should I use?
In low light most photographers recommend a really fast lens. That means a lens that allows you to use the widest of apertures 1.8 for example. On bonfire night, when everything is moving I find it impossible to get the right bit in focus with an aperture this wide. If you manage to get someone standing still, waiting or preparing for something, and you have enough light to focus of the eyes of a person, you would probably get a great shot. On the whole though I find this aperture gives me such a small plane of focus in the image that most of my images end up not sharp in the right place. F4 is easier to handle, though you are loosing a lot of light and this will effect your shutter speed (making it slower and creating more motion blur). Another trick to help you here is to set your camera to underexpose, again the better the camera the more detail you will be able to recover in photoshop or lightroom later, and the less noise in your dark areas. It’s also worth noting that bonfire night images look better on the darker side, it’s dark and you are capturing the way the street and the people are catching the light so don’t be afraid to underexpose a little.
It’s a balancing act, you cant have the ideal ISO, aperture and shutter speed for the best quality image in these lighting conditions, there are going to have to be sacrifices.
What shutter speed should I use?
Your shutter is going to need to be open for longer to record the limited light here. With a super wide angle lens I can get away with 30th second sometimes, but I need to be close with a wide angle and this can be tricky as the crowds are quite thick and fierce. Try and find yourself on the outskirts of the action at times, sometimes, early on, you can catch people preparing to march, an ideal opportunity to get in close and try shooting with a shutter speed of 60th or even 30th of a second. With a longer lens you will probably need a faster speed of at least 60th of a sec and usually more. If your camera or lens has image stabilisation, turn it on.
Bonfire night tips and tricks
- Use RAW. Make sure you have your camera set to RAW before you go. With detail being lost because of the extremem lighting condition you need the best quality image your camera is capable of getting. It’s going to help when you are trying to recover detail later.
- As mentioned before the outskirts of the action can provide better opportunities for people dressed up. It can be really difficult to get near enough for good people shots on the night.
- Remember it’s light that we are short of here, so give yourself an advantage and choose a spot under a bright street lamp, or brightly lit shop window.
- Try some shots from the ground if you can using the road or pavement to steady your camera, or find a street sign or bin or bollard to stabilise your camera.
- When taking pictures of people on the move so try motor drive and shoot the movement. It is a bit hit and miss but you might come out with an ace.
- You are unlikely to be able to retain the detail of the flames in every shot and get a reasonable enough exposure on the face, expose for the face and worry about the highlights later. You could fake a little fire detail later using a piece of fire from another frame, and place it on a layer above the burned out flame, reduce the opacity so that it’s barely there, nobody will notice!
- Notice moments when a torch is lighting up a face, watch out for people lighting flares, chase the light and notice when a face is catching it, these will become the most effective portraits with the best detail and focus on the face.
- Learn where all the buttons are on your camera that I’ve talked about above then practise adjusting them with your eyes closed. You’ll soo be able to play your camera in the dark. Alternatively take a little torch!